The first thing I broke was the cream-colored ceramic sugar bowl. Smashed to bits. I’d been at my friend’s flat in London for less than a day, and left to my own devices, I innocently placed a cup in the dish rack, and like a collapsing house of cards, the contents of the rack began to shift, and through an unnoticed gap in the front of the rack, the sugar bowl escaped and smashed onto the floor. My first-day settling-in disaster.
But I wasn’t done. My destruction cut a path from the kitchen to the bathroom where I didn’t fully comprehend that the shower fixture didn’t want to turn the way I wanted it to turn, and with superhuman strength, I bent it, rendering it unusable. It took hours, and a toolbox, for me to fix it.
Then it was on to the den – my bedroom for the visit – where I thought I’d broken the TV. I’d switched it off with the remote, and no amount of maniacal and increasingly haphazard button-pressing would turn it on again. (It took my friend all of two seconds to locate the on/off button on the side of the set – a button that I swear wasn’t there earlier – and bring the BBC back into our world.)
Then back to the kitchen a few days later where I desperately tried to open the clothes-dryer door after the cycle had ended, unaware that the door would not, could not, open until a full minute had passed. A minute filled with thoughts of wrenches and hammers and whatever I may require to force open the door and rescue my clothes.
That’s me, staying with a friend for two weeks in London, a city I’m somewhat familiar with, in a country whose language I share.
So Philip Graham and his family can be excused for their “first-day settling-in disasters” at the start of their year in Portugal, alone in a Lisbon apartment struggling with the flat’s lighting system. Dispatches, detailing their disasters – and triumphs – previously appeared in McSweeney’s online, and now the wonderful collected memoir of the Graham family’s year in Portugal The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon is available in print.
In 2006, author and teacher Philip Graham uprooted his family – his anthropologist wife Alma and their 12-year-old daughter Hannah – and transplanted them to Lisbon. Reading the dispatches, I felt as if I were with this family every step of the way, through every day-to-day adventure and every settling-in disaster, as they walked that fine line between fitting in and remaining on the outside.
“I do and I don’t feel at home here,” Graham writes. “I oscillate between comfort and unease.”
Language of course is a big barrier and while the whole family does its best to learn and communicate in Portuguese, it proves to be a challenge.
“There’s so much to remember in building a Portuguese sentence,” Graham writes, leading in to an account of a morning reading of a Portuguese newspaper, and how a single word – andar (to walk) – can be used in so many different ways. “One lousy verb, so many subgestures.”
A recurring theme in Graham’s book is “Saudade,” a complex emotion “that combines sorrow, longing and regret, laced perhaps with a little mournful pleasure.” Saudade colors all aspects of Portuguese life – from its fado music to its soccer matches to its underdog sensibility.
This being a family memoir, food and drink naturally have a strong presence and the wines and fish and other delicacies linger on the tip of the reader’s tongue. When I finished reading The Moon, Come to Earth, I asked my parents – who had spent a few days in Lisbon some years ago – what image lingered the most. Without missing a beat, my mother replied “the grilled sardines.”
Here is the opening phrase of the opening line of the opening dispatch in Philip Graham’s book: “The grilled sardines, lying in my plate…”
The Moon, Come to Earth lifted me up from my humdrum life and transplanted me into the Graham family’s Lisbon adventure. It was a day-to-day adventure, full of the familiar, full of new routines and small struggles. It was a bit sad to leave it all, a bit of saudade creeping into my own life.
A week or so after reading it, I was in London, wreaking havoc in the flat, and trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. Fighting the good fight. And delighting in the small triumphs.
At The Morning News, a wide-ranging conversation with the writer Philip Graham, most recently the author of The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon. Included is his account of getting a story into the New Yorker off the slush pile, and a footnote touting The Millions and other online literary venues as places to find great book recommendations.